Canada’s Friesen family considers planting a meat processing facility in northern Montana
A Canadian company has started the ball rolling on what could become Montana’s largest meat processing facility. Todd Hanson, a consultant who has been working with the Canadian food company for about a year said the plant would process and market Montana born, raised and fed beef to be marketed both domestically and internationally.
Montana’s Cascade County Planning Division received a Special Use Permit Application, from Friesen Foods LLC, for the development of the Madison Food Park, a plant that would be built on 3,018 acres near Great Falls.
Hanson, president of Norsman Consulting Group, managing the project, said that for the past 10 years, his business development firm has investigated which communities in Montana would best fit this scenario. “We’ve looked at rail link opportunities, proximity to producers, interstate transport.”
And when Ed Friesen reached out about a year ago for advice on building a Montana packing plant, Hanson’s group was prepared with information. Together they agreed Great Falls would be the spot.
“We’ve seen a lot of ideas come and go; some good, some not so good,” Hanson said. This one, while still in the preliminary stages, is a good one, he believes.
With 1.49 million beef cows and 45,000 head of cattle on feed in the Big Sky State, according to the USDA data, Montana is the ideal place for a processing facility, according to Andy Kellom, feedlot manager at Bos Terra, in Hobson.
“I really don’t know a lot about the plans,” Kellom said. “But at this point, I don’t see how it can be a negative for the cattle industry.”
Kellom is 90 miles east of Great Falls, and says they currently ship cattle up to 400 miles for slaughter.
A 2014 feasability study, by One Montana, a non-profit with a goal of changing the way Montanan’s think and act about rural and urban communities, examinined how to build a multispecies meat processing plant in Montana. Experts in plant design, marketing, economics, labor, and wastewater were recruited to research. One Montana found it is possible, and would even be profitable, for a plant that processes 250 head per day to be built in Montana.
Bill Bryan, president of One Montana, pointed out that this study looked at a beef/bison facility primarily, but as a whole, is encouraged that Friesen is looking at building a plant, pointing out that the state “essentially exports 1.5 million critters per year.”
“I’m glad to hear they are pursuing their project,” Bryan said, and hopes they gained knowledge from One Montana’s public study.
According to the overview of the proposed Madison Food Park, it will include, when complete, a multi-species food processing plant for cattle, pigs, and chickens, along with further processing facilities for beef, pork, and poultry. The company also has plans to incorporate the processing of milk, cheeses, and other dairy products, plus a distillery, for Montana-branded spirits, and a packaging, transportation and distribution network.
With a cost plus formula, including a profit margin and premium headed directly back to the producer, and a focus on efficiency, the Montana location is ideal for a number of reasons, according to Hanson, including location.
The multi-species food processing plant proposal would be located on a 3,018-acre plot of cropland 8.3 miles east of Great Falls, just past the BNSF railroad viaduct and south of U.S. Highway 89/200.
“This is about taking care of Montana producers, first and foremost,” Hanson said. “In Montana, we have the best bred and the best fed, but we never got to finish the product.”
Friesen Foods, an Alberta, Canada-based company, says it will employ over 3,000 people and export thousands of tons of meat to consumer markets throughout North America. The preliminary numbers on 260 processing days include, 1,800 cattle per day, 9,200 hogs per day, and 135,000 chickens per day.
“The scope and scale of the proposed Madison Food Park (MFP) property and project will include, when complete, a state-of-the-art, robotically controlled, environmentally friendly, multi-species food processing plant for cattle, pigs and chickens and the related further processing facilities for beef, pork and poultry,” Friesen Foods said in a statement.
“In addition to the meat packing elements, the project will also incorporate facilities for the processing of both fresh milk supplied by local and regional dairy producers into a variety of cheese products, as well as a distillery, which will source the grain necessary for the production of Montana branded spirits from cereal crops grown by area farmers,” Friesen Foods said.
The company also plans to develop training and apprenticeships programs through Montana State University.
The project has raised the ire of some community members, over water issues (up to 3.55 million gallons), animal waste disposal (approximately 103,000 pounds) and the potential smell. The water would come from three to four deep wells drilled into the Madison aquifer.
According to the most recent permit, “99.6 percent of the solid and liquid waste produced as a direct by-product of livestock processing will be…recycled by means of anaerobic digestion technology incorporated into the energy generation equipment design of the facilities, which will convert the waste stream into usable energy (methane gas) to power electric turbines.”
But the permit plans aren’t enough to wave off concerns. A group opposed to the project is already speaking out —Great Falls Area Concerned Citizens.
“We’re forever going to be known as the stinky slaughterhouse town if they open this facility,” George Nikolakalos, an organizer of the plant opposition, told reporters.
“I’m generally pro-growth but these plants create a massive stench. When I lived just south of Omaha our whole town and base stunk for hours each week. In some locations it’s worse than that. I’d also point out these will be overwhelmingly low wage jobs and these companies generally import massive amounts of illegal labor. In Iowa and Nebraska entire towns have been overwhelmed by a massive influx of illegal workers. Other towns have since learned the lesson and organized to deny these plants. So, if you’re in Belt and downwind you can expect a massive stench and influx of non-English speakers into your schools. There is a a lot of preparation to deal with that if it’s going to be approved. With all the empty space, why not go a ways more out of the population center? The community needs to at least ask hard questions and make sure the plant is properly vetted and school, police, jails and civil organizations are ready for the consequences. Of course, before these guys buy the land they’ve usually already got the key players on board so fighting it will take a hell of a movement.”
The Special Use Permit application will have a public hearing by the Cascade County Zoning Board of Adjustment. The project, still in the preliminary stages has to get approval from a long list of state and federal agencies before it is approved, including the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, city and county health officials, the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services, the Cascade County Sheriff’s Office, the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, Malmstrom Air Force Base and Cascade County Conservation Districts.
“It’s a concern for the people building the plant, but I don’t know if it’s a concern for the rest of us,” Kellom added, referring to the water and smells associated with the plant, and pointing out that the systems were in place to make sure the project was safe and a positive for the community.
Hanson said that the process of wading through the special request permits had just begun, and transparency was a priority.
“We welcome, encourage, and want the open conversation,” Hanson said. “And we want it to be based on what is known. Our purpose is not to be secretive.”
The plans at this point are still evolving, Hanson pointed out, and said the company respects the publics concerns.
Friesen family has been operating in Alberta for the past two decades. From a livestock production enterprise, the corporation has expanded to include meat processing and animal nutrition divisions.
Friesen Livestock Nutrition and Friesen Livestock is a family run business, founded by Dick Friesen, and sons Edward and Dennis. With hard work, dedication and a focus on family values, the success in the agriculture industry has grown, with operations throughout Western Canada and the northwestern United States, with an eye on the world, according to the company website.
While the Friesen name is on the proposed plant, Hanson points out that the Madison Food Park will be a completely separate company.